07 April 2016

Looking for Sekera and finding ourselves


A few weeks ago, HarithGunawardena sent me a link to a song by the late Clarence Wijewardena.   According to K.G. Jinasena, an ardent collector of anything written about or by Mahagama Sekera, the lyricist was Chitranganie Rajapaksha, from Kandy.


 සීත පවන් හමා ඇදී අඳුර ගලන සැන්දෑවක
රැහැයි ගීත නද අතරින් අඩ සඳ බැස යන මොහොතක
ඔබ කළ ඇරයුම සිහිවී දුක් කඳුලින් පිරුණු නෙතේ
සදා සුවෙන් ඔබ සැතපෙන තණ පියසේ නිසල ලොවේ දුක් ගීයක් ලියන්නටයි
මා ආවේ සොහොන් කොතේ

මව් දෙරණේ නිධාන වී සැඟවී ගිය නමුදු ඔබේ
නාමය පවතී කිවිඳුනි අප හද තුළ නොමියන සේ
දුක් ගීයක් ලීවෙමි මම සැලෙන ඇඟිලි තුඩු අතරින්
පලන්ගටි ගී තනුව අනුව සිහිල් පවන එය ගයාවි
එතකොට ඒ ගී රාවය පාවී ඔබ හට ඇසේවි 



Here’s a rough translation:



When cold winds blew on an evening dark

Through the music of crickets as the half moon dipped

With tear-filled eyes did I come

Heeding your request to where you lay in eternal rest

Just to pen a song on your gravestone at the silent green



You’ve disappeared, in Mother Earth interred

But Poet! In our hearts you are forever resident!

Thus did I write with trembling fingers a song

The cool winds will sing the grasshopper composition

And then will it soar for you to hear.



It is clearly a response-song to the popular ‘maa mala pasusohonkothe’[Upon my gravestone after I die…] written by MahagamaSekera and voiced by Pundit Amaradeva.   To my knowledge this is the only song aboutMahagamaSekera.  Ironically it is Clarence who sings it.  Ironically, because Clarence is seldom spoken of in iconic terms when the subject of modern Sinhala music is discussed.  Ironic because few actually speak of Sekera.  But Clarence did, according to Harith. 



“Sekera is a person who seemed to have achieved maargapala, at least sovaan.  When it comes to writing lyrics, he is unsurpassed.”



That’s what Clarence said.  Clarence paid tribute to Sekera in a land where one might conclude that tribute aside Sekera has not even been adequately read. 



Sure, we do see lots of pieces in newspapers when his birth and death anniversaries come around.   This is good of course.  Is it good enough?  ‘Enough’ is hard to ascertain, this is also true.  A few days ago at the launch of ‘Pranaini’, a collection of poems by Troy Mahamohottala one of the guest speaks referred to MahagamaSekera.  He said that once Sekera was asked why he writes, to which question Sekera had replied, simply, “for my aathmathrupthiya” (for my satisfaction).  That’s both a confession and a recommendation for writers as well as readers. 



When we read Sekera, we know him.  When we read Sekera (or anyone else for that matter) we indulge ourselves.  When we re-read it is because it delights us.  The moment we ‘own’ Sekera’s work, it becomes ours, it becomes us.  While this is true for all poetry, all literature and all art, in the case of Sekera it is often held that he spoke to everyone.  This is true. 



I remember a ‘Sekera Moment’ way back in January 1997 when a group of students in Peradeniya who went by the name Hantane Nava Parapuraorganised a "SekeraSemaruma"or “Commemoration of MahagamaSekera”.


There were a couple of short talks delivered by university lecturers where Sekera’s work was examined, followed by a general discussion. If the lectures gave the audience Sekera in a nutshell, the discussion served to free the poet from all pet frameworks. Sekera came alive in that most vibrant airing of views and his being floated unfettered all over the Arts Theater. I found then too that there was no lack of people wanting to claim him as their own.


There was a young student belonging to the Young Socialists who claimed that Sekera’s sensibilities were eminently Marxian, while a Buddhist monk said that his poetry epitomised the Buddhist approach to life. A third said that he recommended Sekera’sepic poem “Prabuddha” to anyone who wanted an answer to the question "What is JathikaChintanaya?" Finally, a Philosophy student observed that the length of the ideological spectrum from which these claims arrived points to the richness of Sekera’s work and reflects the fact that he touched so many people deeply. Sekera, as my father once said, like the sky, is not less private although he belongs to us all.


Sugara, commenting on the commemoration of Sekera’s 25th death anniversary, had something like this to say:


"Sekera’s verse; honed with a sensitivity to recognise humanity and life, an understanding of tradition and heritage, and an unbounded compassion to human beings; was not only the language of his heart, it was the mark of his genius. It is true that he traversed his creative ocean as a novelist, filmmaker and an artist; but it was the poem that blossomed in his heart as a lotus, exuding fragrance. Has this poetic path been adequately reviewed? We are curious to know if the Sinhala poetic form, which Sekera explored and indeed whose traditional boundaries he shattered as he searched for its identity, has been subject to serious inquiry. Do the various schools of Sekera devotees possess such eyes as are necessary for this?"


Sekera died on January 14, 1976, the record shows.  And yet, he did not die in 1976, for he was alive when he first came to me, again in the form of a book that my father brought home later that year, ‘MahagamaSekarageGeetha (MahagamaSekarara’s Lyrics)’.  He has been alive since, in all the lyrics to which melody, music and voice were added to give us memorable songs.  He was alive a few years ago at the NelumPokuna when Pundit Amaradeva sang what is widely held as the people’s national anthem, ‘RatnaDeepaJanmaBhoomi’.  He’s been that much more alive in the past three years because I visited him frequently as I attempted to translate ‘Prabuddha’ into English. 



That exercise naturally made me read several times the foreword to ‘Prabuddha’ penned by the late Ven. Dhammavihari, then Prof JyothiyaDheerasekera.   That essay was commissioned by the poet himself and is a piece of writing that Sekera never got to see, just as he didn’t see the book in print, it a literary and philosophical gem, in a way as profound as ‘Prabuddha’ and therefore a perfect complement to the text.   


Dheerasekera notes that neither he nor Sekera could have known that Death was the uninvited ‘third party’ at their discussion.  He had called the professor and asked for a meeting.  The professor had expressed surprise that Sekera, given his vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects and proven excellence across many literary genres was nevertheless not holding a teaching post in a university.  He had pointed out in particular the depth of meaning in Prabuddha and the fine deployment of critical faculties in unlayering a social, political, cultural and philosophical milieu. It so happened that Sekera attended to the final edits of his doctoral dissertation after visiting Dheerasekera. 



Dheerasekera had told Sekera that he displayed innumerable and happy elements of a writer endowed with a poetic disposition filled with generosity, humility and honesty.  Sekera had merely stated, ‘In that case, it would be best that you write the introduction’. 



Dheerasekera’s introduction refers to Sekera’s previous work, including MaknisadaYath (The reason being…), Nomiyemi (the closest English translation, Sekera's son suggests would be "My will against my willingness to die") and specific lyrics for stage plays.  The way he describes the man mirrors the nature of the main character of the epic poem, Prabuddha.  The story is a veritable exposition of the cultural, literary and musical tastes of the time, the changes therein, the dangers ahead and the possible ways of recovering the humanity that was clearly under threat.  Dheerasekera elevates Prabuddha to an importance of a nature that calls for a replication of the work in all art forms.  Indeed, such an exercise is the responsibility of youth with discerning taste and exceptional creative ability.   


Prabuddha was his last poetic exercise, although his doctoral dissertation, Sinhala GadyaPadyaNirmanaKerehiRidmayaBalapaAthiAkaraya (Influence of Rhythm on the Sinhala Prose and Poetry)’ can theoretically be read as a similar unfolding.  Sekera may not have anticipated the ‘end’ that Prabuddha clearly marked, but Prabuddha, on account of his passing, marks his, philosophically, politically and literally, in a manner more pronounced than his other work. This is why it is the most frequently quoted and referred to of all his work, none of which can be called ‘lesser’. 



Sekera, in Prabuddha, brings a nation and a collective back to something that was and encourages a journey to a something that can still be (better).  It is a call for a softer engagement drawing from Buddhism but not exclusive from that doctrine.  There is a world he envisaged and which he promised to design, before leaving (dying).  He could not, but he did sketch a blueprint, or rather gathered blueprint from the civilizational ethos which made him who he was and which can be the foundation of a cultural, social and moral edifice that we could all inhabit.

From the silent sky
where the half-moon becomes pronounced
by and by 
there drips the milk
for a child’s heart;
the infant son smiles
dreaming of the new world
that will come up tomorrow.
 
In this motherland
where a nation of giants
who built the thousand reservoirs
are now reborn 
new freedoms emerge 
in a myriad of color
elegantly polished 
by his smile;
I wipe my tears
and see
the little boy reigning 
in a debt-free fear-free tomorrow 
 
Little sons all,
who conjure the spring
that wipe weariness
from tired limb,
know this:
when I see you
that labor is pleasure
nothing else;
I cannot leave,
before I craft
that world
I’ve made and shaped
over twenty five hundred years.
 
And therefore, Siddhartha!
And therefore grant me permission of finality
bless me in the manner of the Buddhas who came before
blessed the Buddhas to be,
now, this moment. 
 

At this very table,
upon this very chair
among these papers,
in a paddy field that knows
tilling, sowing and reaping,
among slogans, strikes and 
the teeth of a factory wheel,
in a crowded train
carrying men and women 
in their thousands
to work and back,
to secure the ultimate truth
Enlightenment,
not alone, no
but with those millions
to know together
to reach collectively
the truth
Enlightenment!


But it was not all about nation and community, and not all about the class-laden “oppression”.  He wasn’t as prescriptive as some make him out to be.  Indeed, even as I write about him at this very moment, I am troubled by the thought that I am doing disservice to an important thrust of the man’s thinking. 


I doubt if Sekera ever wanted clinical treatment of his work. His poetry after all has a rare quality of humility; he shies away from investigation and implores the reader not to search for him in his work. Thus he consciously recognised the full agentic power of the reader and only speaks of "hopes". Sekera never demanded. This is evident in the introductory poem in the collection Sakvalihini titled "Mage kaviyenobadakinna" (view yourself in my poem), which I have translated below. It is indeed a gentle and very revealing note on how Sekera wanted to be read, or, more precisely, how he ought not to be read, and why.


"Look not for me in my poem.

You and I, and all of us

are journeying towards a morning star

shining at the far end of a dim sky,

knowing and not knowing that we are.

Someday, all of you

will encounter the great mountains

and steep cliffs

I meet along the way.

When you stumble and lose your way

among the many traps along the path,

when your body is soiled

by the mud showered by untruths,

when, bludgeoned, you cling

to the earth with weak hands,

when that day you weep helplessly

just as I have wept,

my poetry will becomes yours.

Friend! Then, without searching,

find yourself and not me in my verse.

When the blood that flows from my feet

as they break upon thorns and hard gravel,

points out the correct path from those that lead astray,

and you come to your journey’s end

to find the morning star,

if you happen to do so before me,

a felicitation of flowers will bloom for your feet.

Among those petals, find me."



Reading this, it would seem that the anonymous lyricist referred to at the beginning of this essay, when speaking of the “naamaya”(name) that Sekera had left undying is not his (i.e. “MahagamaSekera”) but hiscall for self-exploration. 


I realize all over again something that came to me about 12 years ago when I first wrote about Sekera:  “I do not know how to commemorate a dead poet. And I do not know why one should commemorate at all, poets or non-poets. If all life is transient, everything is subject to the law of decay, and this includes the law itself. People die, memories too die. Commemoration then, let me offer tentatively, is perhaps a marking of time, more of one’s passing than the passing of the dead. Sekera might not have disagreed.


I cannot know how others read Sekera. Speaking for myself, I have been lifted, empowered, saddened, chastised and humbled by Sekera and this only because his poetry is a mirror that allows us to see ourselves. He has given me tears and laughter, and these have filled the lamps I carry and have fed the feeble flames that I have counted on in certain dark and dreadful days.


I can say with conviction, “I know him better now, but I might know him less later, and it’s all about how well I know myself and how I’ve ‘unlearnt’ myself”.


I wrote this fifteen years ago:


Perhaps there will be a flower for me someday. Hopefully, in the spirit with which Sekera wrote, it will be such a garden where the best in the human being flourishes, if only because of the collective character of the journey. That will certainly be a felicitation, a celebration where some of us can think of Sekera and be grateful that he walked on this earth, and of course that he traced his journeys with the exquisite play of word and metaphor.


BandulaNanayakkarawasam I believe said it better in what could be read as an extrapolation of the sentiments to embrace the collective during a delightful event titled “Rae Ira Pana – Sekera Mahima” two years ago: 



“Let all that is best in all of us come together and create another Mahagama Sekera who would then unravel who we are and the world we live in and thereby show us the pathways we ought to choose so we can reach a better, more tender, more knowing world.”


Reactions:

2 comments:

වැසි දැරිය - The Rain Girl said...

No doubt.. Sekara was the greatest poet ever lived in this country.He was the teacher.. the guiding star..!!

Anonymous said...


For me as well , yes ....I have been lifted, empowered, saddened, chastised and humbled by Sekera and this only because his poetry is a mirror that allows us to see ourselves. He has given me tears and laughter, and these have filled the lamps I carry and have fed the feeble flames that I have counted on in certain dark and dreadful days.

As you say, on top of all poetry Prabuddha is the mirror which allowed me to see myself and it continues to see in different way each time I read it.

This is a beautiful note of gratitude to the great poet .Beautiful write up Malinda.